Two Oaxaqueña Poets
The phenomenology of the poetic imagination allows us to explore the being of man considered as the being of a surface, of the surface that separates the region of the same from the region of the other. It should not be forgotten that in this zone of sensitized surface, before being, one must speak, if not to others, at least to oneself. And advance always. In this orientation, the universe of speech governs all the phenomena of being, that is, the new phenomena. By means of poetic language, waves of newness flow over the surface of being. And language bears within itself the dialectics of open and closed. Through meaning it encloses, while through poetic expression, it opens up.
Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
Oaxaca is an almost inexplicable and complex place. So often I have tried to express to others what the essence of Oaxaca is though language and have failed. If poetry is an extension of our language, or as typographer, linguist and poet Robert Bringhurst believes, a special type of knowledge before and beyond language, perhaps we can come to know something about Oaxaca after all. There is something we can come close to articulating about the magic of this land and its people through the poetry of our own being. It is likely, however, that the closest we might ever get to understanding the essence[s] of this mountainous southern Mexican state is through the eyes, words and voices of two of her poetic champions. One who has passed and one who is very present, María Sabina and Natalia Toledo Paz.
Here we have two very different poets that nonetheless share something very important in common. Although María Sabina was a Mazatec Curandera (Shaman) oral poet and Natalia Toledo is a contemporary Zapotec poet, both poets explore the history and potentialities of their indigenous tongues and culture. Furthermore, both poets revive an indigenous knowledge and sense of space. Another important commonality in their poetry is the projection of the feminine body and spirit. Both women do a commendable job in darning the bodies which colonialism had tried so hard to desecrate: the indigenous and female bodies. They are postcolonial artists creating and recreating a sense of place for Oaxaqueños and Mexicans alike. Both in their language and in their poetics we find a sense of what Oaxaca is, we experience, even if only momentarily, the elusive spirit of this diverse and complicated place. Let’s take a brief look at each of these poets in chronological order.
María Sabina (1894? — 1985)
Because you gave me your clock
Because you gave me your thought
Beacause I am a clean woman
Because I am a Cross Star woman
Because I am a woman who flies
I am the sacred eagle woman, says
I am the Lord eagle woman, says
I am the lady who swims, says
Because I can swim in the immense
Because I can swim in all forms
Because I am the launch woman
Because I am the sacred opposum
Because I am the Lord opposum
I am the woman Book that is beneath the water, says
I am the woman of the populous town, says
I am the shepherdess who is beneath the water, says
I am the woman who shepherds the immense, says
I am a shepherdess and I come with my shepherd, says
Because everything has its origin
And I come going from place to place from the origin.
María Sabina was born sometime in the late nineteenth century in the Sierra Mazteca in the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca mountain range. María was to become the first Curandera or Shaman to allow Westerners to participate in the practice. She was known for her use of psilocybin mushrooms as a healing and spiritual practice. María believed that the mushrooms acted as a gateway to opening the mind and communicating with God. She often referred to the mushrooms as her holy or sacred children and claimed to communicate with them; however, after an influx of Western drug tourists to Oaxaca she proclaimed that “from the moment [they the] foreigners arrived, the ‘holy children’ lost their purity. They lost their force, their purity. Henceforth, they will no longer work. There is no remedy for it.” María was born into poverty and she would die impoverished and starving to death. Her practice in the healing arts was the culmination and perhaps the end of pure indigenous shamanism in Oaxaca. What remains of her eternally are records of her chants, her poetry.
María Sabina’s poetry is in the oral tradition. Her poems take the form of chants, in which she calls upon the voices of her holy children, the mushrooms, to speak through her and grant her access to the divine in order to heal. Her chanting as seen in the poem above provided the listener and patient a rhythmically cathartic experience. The language she spoke was Maztec and in Maztec the mushrooms are known as ‘nti-ši-tho, ‘Little one who springs forth’. Maztecan language family (as Maztec is a group of languages) is a part of the Oto-Manguean language family found in indigenous communities all over Mexico. Oto-Manguean languages are tonal in nature in both grammar and lexis. The Maztec language family is also notable in its development of whistle speech in which conversations might be had in full through whistling.
María Sabina exploited the language to its fullest using its tonality in humming and whistling, and in the repetition and spontaneity in her chants, poetry and song. She believed that the mushrooms would allow her to reach back to the first-language, the root language, the language of all things. She said that the language would fall upon her from the heavens which she would catch like little gifts. Certainly her voice, as archived and recorder by an American banker and psychedelic adventurer R. Gordon Wasson, evokes a primordial timelessness, spirituality and out-of-bodiness to it. With it we feel the immortality of the spirit of the land of Oaxaca. A celebration of life and life after death. María brings to life the dormant spirit of Oaxaca and invites us to open our eyes to the beauty of her magic which is to be found in her spectacular landscapes and deep in the souls of her ancient peoples.
In her poetry and in her life María Sabina also evokes a sense of the complexities of life in Oaxaca. Though an indigenous woman high in the mountains of Oaxaca she was not immune to the effects of colonization. She was a spiritually complex woman practicing a sort of theological syncretism between her indigenous belief systems and of a hybrid Catholicism. Of course this colonial inheritance also lead to a syncretism in her language which acted as a fuse between the ancient and colonial worlds of Oaxaca and Mexico. Through this poetic hybridity of her spirituality and language we can get a sense of the complexities of a post-colonial cultural inheritance in Oaxaca. María Sabina’s poetics embody the contradictory nature of life as a survivor of colonization and the complexities of a globalizing world in the face of an ongoing imperialism and colonization taking the forms of Western liberalism, neoliberalism, and democratic free-market capitalism. Her voice will always echo as a spiritual and revolutionary call to and from the ancient and first peoples of Oaxaca. Her legacy is an understanding or a glimpse of what Oaxaca is through a poetic system of language and epistemology.
Natalia Toledo (1967)
House of My Dreams
I come down from the mountain
a pool of spring water looks back at me,
I see my grandmother’s house
in the midst of the jungle.
I walk upon the foliage
a heavy door opens,
I can touch the peeling walls
what does my nose smell?
The candle releases its incense
in the breezeway.
I open the window, there is the jungle:
the house is cool,
I go to the kitchen
the kettles are my mother’s womb.
Smells of soursop and ripening nance,
the sound of oil frying, fish smoke.
What do I feel?: I am content.
I descend the mountain, before me:
a white house with missing tiles
beds of thread stretch across their skies, in my garden no shortage of birds.
I caress a deer and her eyes are an oval sadness.
I’m wearing a plaid shirt
and two crabs pinch my little girl nipples,
I don’t smile; I stand stiff as a post.
I am eight years old and my body is a house that remembers her house.
Translated by Natalia Toledo from Zapotec to Spanish, Spanish translated to English by Clare Sullivan for Asymptote Journal.
Natalia Toledo is a contemporary Zapotec poet born in Juchitán de Zaragoza, a small city located in the Oaxacan Isthmus. It was in her native tongue and through the experiences afforded her in the immediate environment that she was brought into that she believes she had found her voice as a poet. She once claimed that “Zapotec is an invitation to metaphor; it is a language in which you paint a metaphorical picture of what you wish to express. Zapotec has a great aesthetic sensibility for creating images and beauty.“1 Toledo’s poetry is a self-determining poetry in which she wishes to break the familiar stereotypes of what it means to be Juchitecan. It is a poetry that is at once confessional, unabashedly Juchitecan and Zapotecan, and profoundly humane and universal. Toledo’s poetry evokes a sense of nostalgia; however, they reach far beyond nostalgia in the universality and timelessness. Her poems espouse an epistemology, a language, and emotive seizure of humanity.
Like Mezteca the Zapotec languages are also a branch of the Oto-Manguean family. Toledo’s maternal language is a small belongs to the Zapotec sub-family and is called Isthmus Zapotec and is native to her hometown Juchitán de Zaragoza and neighbouring Tehuantepec. Like many of the sub-family languages in the Oto-Manguean family this branch of Zapotec might be completely unintelligible to another. This makes each language geographically distinct in that each language will come to represent its own regional uniqueness. It wasn’t until colonization that Zapotec languages were given a “Westernized” alphabet, and in the past had been largely written as logophonetic scripts. Zapotec is fundamentally and historically an oral language. Much like the ancient traditions of story-telling, poetry, and knowledge it was passed on orally.
The orality of Toledo’s poetry transverses culture and time undermining Oaxaca’s colonial heritage celebrating indigenous language and tradition while at the same earmarking and celebrating the evolution of a postcolonial struggle for a language and culture to transcend the typical historical annexation of a way of life and being in this world. The open syllable structure of the Zapotecan language and Toledo’s poetry in it gives a sense of the language opening up and blossoming into the world. It is as if every word is born for the exact moment it is spoken. An Open syllable language requires all syllables to end with a vowel. This the mouth remains open and the tongue remains unobtrusively in the middle allowing air to flow directly in and out from the lungs. The sound of the vowels ascend from silence rising skyward giving Toledo’s poems, and her language, a lofty feeling that one is floating along side them. As poetry should it transcends language and provides us with new epistemologies and eyes from which to see the world anew.
Toledo’s poetry does not only explore her language and culture, but it explores what it means to be a woman within the Zapotecan, Juchitecan and Oaxacan cultural landscape. Her poetry explores the embeddedness of the feminine body within its cultural context. As with the poem quoted above, her poetry expresses metaphysical bodies, tactile bodies and bodies of reverie. Her poems seem to attempt to bridge the widening gap of understanding of what it is to be a Juchitecan woman and provide us with an atlas of the metamorphosis of an ancient culture through a postcolonial lens. Her words act as a rallying cry to revive her language and culture and in their most solemn times they might sound like a future epitaph marking the headstone of a culture that could survive colonization but has struggled to survive its second wave in the form and fetishization of Western neoliberal capitalism.
Poetry and the Birth of Understanding
Language is second to poetry. Some say that poetry is language. But I will agree with Robert Bringhurst when he claims that poetry is not exclusive to language, that “poetry is not manmade; it is not pretty words; it is not something hybridized by humans on the farm of human language. Poetry is a quality or aspect of existence. It is the thinking of things.“2 If we are to take seriously the indigenous roots of these two Oaxacan poets we must take seriously their epistemology, their way of knowing. Bringhurst also tells us that poetry, like science, is a way of finding something out, it is a methodological tool for understanding. Poetry and thinking are as linked as poetry and being. Poetry is not just epistemology but the expression of how we exist, of our being-in-this-world.
This is what is so supremely important about these two poets. Through them we can find the primordial expression of what it is to be Meztecan, Zapotecan or Oaxacan. Through their poetry and their knowledge and expression we can come to a better understanding of the essence of Oaxaca in all of its complexity and contradiction. Through the transversality of their poetics with culture, language, gender and history we get a glimpse of the universal. We come to understand that we all want to understand something and perhaps, within the limits of our languages, the best way to express our understanding is through poetry and to exist as poetically as the poems we read, recite and become. Both poets present us with a becoming: becoming indigenous and becoming woman. In these becomings we feel a metamorphosis and become links to the past. In this sense we travel with these two women as they welcome us into their worlds.
- Sourced from an unpublished interview by Donald Frischmann in his book: Montemayor, Carlos, and Donald H. Frischmann. Words of the True Peoples: Anthology of Contemporary Mexican Indigenous-language Writers. Austin, TX: U of Texas, 2005.
- Robert Bringhurst. The Tree of Meaning. Gaspereau Press, Kentville, Nova Scotia, 2006.